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Infrastructure Asia brings Singapore-based solutions to the region

Jovi Ho
Jovi Ho • 8 min read
Infrastructure Asia brings Singapore-based solutions to the region
Infrastructure Asia’s executive director, Lavan Thiru, has over two decades of experience in finance, having worked at the Ministry of Finance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek-backed Clifford Capital. Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore
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Explaining the role of Infrastructure Asia (InfraAsia) can be challenging. In official terms, InfraAsia is a project facilitation office promoting regional social and economic growth through infrastructure development. Its mission is to accelerate project development, financing and execution to effectively meet the region’s growing demands.

The office’s executive director, Lavan Thiru, however, puts it more succinctly: “What we try to do is formulate strategies for Singapore-based companies to work on infrastructure projects in the region.”

Set up by Enterprise Singapore and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), InfraAsia was officially launched in October 2018. Located within Enterprise Singapore’s office at Bugis Junction Office Tower, it is funded by the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Unlike Enterprise Singapore, which focuses on Singaporean companies, InfraAsia works with any company with a presence in Singapore, including engineering consultants like Arup or Aecom.

InfraAsia directs these efforts towards six regional markets: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. There, InfraAsia facilitates projects related to the circular economy, digitalisation, energy, water, transportation and supply chain logistics.

See also: Hong Kong market second-largest contributor to OCBC’s sustainable loan commitments after S’pore

Unique role

Thiru and his team manage many stakeholders to facilitate collaboration between governments, businesses and advisers. They work with government agencies in those countries, engineering consultants, professional services companies like KPMG and PwC and those in engineering, procurement and construction, such as Keppel BN4 -

and Sembcorp. U96 -

According to him, the “unique role” of InfraAsia allows them to work with all the financial institutions based here. “That’s one of Singapore’s strengths, as a strong financial ecosystem. So, [we] work with them to look at how some of the projects that are coming out in the region can be funded [and] what we can do to make them better projects.”

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Increasingly, a third group of stakeholders approaching InfraAsia are companies in the six markets. “Sometimes, it’s not the government that’s undertaking [a project]; sometimes, state-owned enterprises, regional enterprises or even private sector companies are looking [for help], especially now that the calls for sustainability are much wider,” says Thiru.

He adds that even private sector companies are hoping to move up the value chain and become more sustainable. “They need to implement solutions to help them meet their own targets.”

Marginally bankable

Thiru mentions consultants, or “professional services firms”, several times in our conversation. Hired by governments and businesses, what role do these firms play in advancing infrastructure development across Asia?

He points to the “marginally bankable” nature of the projects. “What it means is that without some form of facilitation, these projects will actually never be able to move to market.”

In addition, these projects are typically in the “very early stages”, says Thiru. “There’s this huge pool of work that needs to be done before the projects can actually move on.”

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Consultants “are the folks who are involved very early on in a project”, he adds. “They provide advice to governments on structuring the project. They help governments outline business case, final business case [and] some of the initial or environmental studies, et cetera.”

Thiru says one of the firm’s objectives is to draw in more active private sector participation. “Many folks are setting up platforms or initiatives to try to channel money into these marginally bankable projects, [to] try to fund these studies to move these projects and unclog that pipeline, so that more projects can flow through to the private sector for participation.”

Capacity building

This also involves working with government bodies. “Sometimes, government-to-government (G2G) projects are also about us doing some capacity building.”

For over two years now, InfraAsia has run the “Growing Infrastructure Course — Enabling & Structuring for Private Sector Participation in Finance and Innovation” for government representatives. “This is different from your very general capacity building,” says Thiru. “It’s very targeted; how do you prepare a project for private sector participation? That’s what we are interested in.”

The five-day course is a joint initiative with the World Bank and Singapore Management University (SMU) and has benefited “over 300” senior government officials over multiple runs, says Thiru.

The most recent run ended on March 1 and cost $10,000 per participant, including accommodation at a four-star hotel. The course is funded by Infrastructure Asia.

The course sets the stage for regional governments to network with local solution providers, says Thiru. At the most recent run, participants met a handful of water and waste management firms, including Singapore-listed Memiontec TWL -

and Sanli Environmental 1E3 -

He adds: “Over time, we [have] realised that in the region, governments have certain problem statements, but it’s not necessarily clear to them what the solutions are, because the solutions do not reside within the markets; their solutions reside in Singapore or other parts of the world. Working with them and socialising with some of our solution providers gives them more confidence to embark on the projects.”

Local solutions for regional issues

Before joining InfraAsia in 2021, Thiru spent over two decades in various roles at MOF, MAS and Temasek-backed Clifford Capital. “I got to see firsthand some of the challenges we face as a result of growing the country and the economy. [There were] many, many initiatives and activities, but we wanted to make sure that [we were] spending within our means.”

In December 2023, InfraAsia renewed its MOU with Cambodia’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, marking five years of partnership. There, InfraAsia is identifying projects in waste, wastewater and water infrastructure, with support from 800 Super, a waste management service provider, and Signify, an electrical appliances provider.

Singapore-headquartered 800 Super, a subsidiary of Keppel, is no stranger to Cambodia. In 2021, it was awarded a 10-year waste collection and transportation contract for one of the three zones in Phnom Penh City, together with Cambodian joint venture partner GAEA Waste Management.

Thiru says incomes are increasing in Cambodia, “and therefore more waste is generated”. “We’ve helped them think through how we can restructure their waste collection system [and] they’ve done it very successfully.”

In the Philippines, InfraAsia is a partner of the Public-Private Partnership Center (PPPC), an attached agency of the country’s National Economic and Development Authority.

In September 2023, InfraAsia hosted a Singapore roadshow showcasing the Philippines’ US$3 billion ($4 billion) project to modernise its main international airport, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

During the two-day roadshow, Thiru says some 200 business leaders attended to learn more about the project and offer feedback. “[They could] also see who are the players in the room who might have interest in a project like this.”

In February, the tender was awarded to a consortium headed by the Philippine multinational conglomerate San Miguel Corporation. The consortium, which also includes South Korea’s Incheon International Airport Corporation, beat out India’s GMR Airports Consortium and Manila International Airport Consortium after it offered the government the biggest share in airport revenues, at 82%.

The PPPC and the Department of Transportation will showcase market-ready projects in the Philippines’ priority sectors at the upcoming Asia Infrastructure Forum 2024. The next edition of the biennial Forum will be held at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre on June 4 and 5.

Upcoming projects

InfraAsia has signed similar MOUs with official bodies from Vietnam and Indonesia’s West Java Province. Thiru says his office has also had “various conversations” with Indonesian officials on its Nusantara capital project.

In Bangladesh, a garment-exporting nation, InfraAsia is keen to help in decarbonisation. “The interesting challenge for Bangladesh is that the buyers of these garments tend to be large apparel makers, [like] Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, who are pressured to make sure they can account for their supply chain — their Scope 3 emissions. Therefore, some of these buyers are putting pressure on these countries to make sure that the factories [and] their inputs can meet requirements.”

Thiru also sees opportunities for local firms in India’s industrial parks, especially in high-end manufacturing.

He adds that improving energy efficiency in these sectors is “low-hanging fruit” that is often overlooked. “One of the largest users of electricity is cooling systems… You can make a small investment but get outsized gain and provide yourself sufficient headroom to allow renewable energy to come into your grid system.”

Beyond the six target countries, InfraAsia is “very practical” when assessing new markets, says Thiru. “Two things must happen before we go into any market. First, we must have clarity over the priority projects in that market, or we must be able to work with those governments to help them develop clarity on the priority projects.”

He adds: “Second, it must be a market that our Singapore-based companies want to go into, or have an interest [in]. So, they must either be in that market, or they have an interest to go into that market.”

Thiru also notes opportunities in Central Asia, but Asean and South Asia remain the “first port of call”. He adds: “We need to do our work first to understand the appetite for companies based in Singapore to access those opportunities.” 

Photos: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore

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